James B. Comey
Federal Bureau of Investigation
14th National Indian Nations Conference, Reservation of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians
Palm Springs, California
December 11, 2014

The FBI’s Commitment to Indian Country

Remarks as delivered.

Thank you—I am honored to be here with you all this morning.

I want to start by thanking Chairman Jeff Grubbe and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians for hosting this conference. Let me also thank the Justice Department’s Office for Victims of Crime and the Tribal Law and Policy Institute for making this possible.

As you heard, I worked for many years as a prosecutor in the Department of Justice. Because of that, I’ve known the FBI for my entire adult life. When I became Director a year and two months ago, I didn’t know it well enough, I thought, to be effective as FBI Director. I have a 10-year term, so I’ve spent the last 15 months traveling as much as I possibly can, in the United States and abroad, to meet my folks and to learn from them what I need to know to be effective as Director.

Critical to all those visits have been conversations that I’ve had with our partners in all different parts of our justice system to learn what I need to know to be more effective as FBI Director.

One key area that I believe is a core responsibility of the FBI that I’ve learned a ton about in the last 15 months is our responsibilities in Indian Country. And I should say a word about that term that we use in the FBI. We use the term “Indian Country,” which is the statutory term that is central to our work—but we also recognize that it is not inclusive of all Native peoples, and I don’t mean you in hearing me use that term to think I take it that way.

I want to talk to you today about how I see our work; how I see our work together; and what I think we in the FBI can do better to serve people who need us most.

Why I’m Here Today

First, a word about why I’m here personally—why this was so important for me to come.

I know that enforcing the law and protecting the innocent and helping victims is part of the FBI’s responsibilities throughout the entire land. And I’ve known some about crime on reservations from my career as a prosecutor. Then, when I became Deputy Attorney General, there was a U.S. Attorney in Arizona named Paul Charlton, who believed that nobody who had grown up east of the Mississippi had any idea of the challenges faced by Native peoples when it came to law enforcement and dealing with the tragedies of victims of crime.

So Paul insisted that I, as deputy attorney general, come out and visit, and I did. I visited I think three different reservations in Arizona and New Mexico, and learned a tremendous amount. Then I left government service in 2005, and I came back a year and two months ago.

Maybe the most important thing that happened to me, that motivated me to be here today, was I have five children. My two youngest daughters last summer went on a church mission trip to a reservation in the Upper Midwest. And they came back with their eyes wide open and talking constantly about the challenges on the reservation and saying, “Dad, you’ve got to do something. You’ve got to do more. There are really good people who need your help. You’ve got to do more. You’ve got to do more.”

And so I promised them that I would get smarter and get better as FBI Director at responding to the needs of our fellow citizens crying out for help on Native lands. And so I have spent a lot of time trying to learn what you need from us, what we’re doing well, what we’re not doing so well—and especially to focus on where the FBI can make a difference.

So many of the challenges and problems that my daughters continue to talk about are beyond the reach of the FBI. But when it comes to horrific violence, to homicide, to domestic violence, to abuse—especially of children—that’s something the FBI can contribute to.

I have eight years and two months left in my term. Let me make a promise to you that I made to my daughters, and that I repeated to them last night when I told them I was coming: this will be a priority of the FBI under my stewardship—and we will get better.

I intend to use those eight years and nine months to work with our special agents and our victim specialists to give them more resources, more opportunities to make a bigger difference in the lives of the people that they serve. The first step for me was trying to understand: what are the challenges that we face? What are the things the FBI is not doing as well as we might need to? And how can we get better?

So let me tell you how I see it.

The FBI’s Role in Indian Country

First, the FBI’s role in Indian Country. I know there is a perception that our investigative work in tribal nations is a low priority, and that we don’t care that much about the work.

There are some good reasons that perception has taken hold—I think that’s fair when people think that, and I’ll address those in a minute—but as I said, let me tell you something, under my stewardship, we are going to work to fight that perception.

But there’s no doubt that the FBI’s work in Indian Country poses unique challenges for us, which I believe contribute to the perception that it’s not something that’s that important to the FBI. Let me spend a few moments talking about how I see those challenges, and what we can do to overcome them together.

The first challenge: cultural awareness.

I think that we have struggled to ensure that our special agents and victim specialists understand the cultures, traditions, and strengths of the tribal nations they work with, because we come from a different place. But that understanding is critical to being able to do the work that they’re charged with doing.

Second: Within that challenge lies another challenge—which is the need to understand and remain aware that there is great diversity within tribal nations, among tribal nations. For example, as I said to you, I recognize that the statutory term “Indian Country” can give the misleading impression that we think that all American Indian and Alaska Native communities are the same.

In fact, we know, and we will make sure that we know every single day, what you already know: that there are tremendous numbers of differences among tribal nations.

So a big challenge for us, I think, has been and will continue to be fully embracing the different cultures and traditions and strengths of the tribal nations we serve, and remembering that one size does not fit all in any human community.

Third: Another challenge we face in the FBI is the complex jurisdictional maze that governs the investigation of major crimes and responses to victims in Indian Country.

The FBI’s role in investigating a specific crime can vary a tremendous amount, depending on the race of the victim, depending on the type of crime committed, and depending upon where the crime was committed.

I’ll give you just one example to illustrate something I hope you already know. Last year, FBI agents responded to a homicide on a reservation. The victim was last seen alive with two suspects at a gas station on state land, but his body was ultimately found in the trunk of his car on the reservation. Investigators were unable to determine where the murder had actually taken place—if it occurred on the reservation, the federal government would have jurisdiction; if it occurred before the reservation, on the state land near the gas station, the state would have jurisdiction.

Six months after the killing, the case remained unindicted, primarily because of the jurisdictional issue.

Issues like that can mean that justice is delayed—and justice delayed is justice denied. We cannot allow that to be the end result. We have to get better at cutting more quickly through the jurisdictional maze that we face.

Fourth: Another challenge that I think has held us back and influenced the perception of our work is that we face, in trying to serve Native American communities, limited resources. We stand there facing a huge amount of work across an almost unimaginably large landscape.

The FBI currently has investigative responsibility for 212 Indian reservations, and we have 115 special agents working in our Indian Country program—that is simply not enough.

I know the tremendous time it takes for us just to respond to a crime scene is a concern to all of you —and it’s a concern for us as well.

To begin to address the staffing and resource needs that I see and the shortfall that I see, I have already asked our Indian Country Crimes Unit and the Office for Victim Assistance at FBI Headquarters to come to me with proposals detailing: What would “great” look like? What additional resources would you need? What do you need in terms of people, what do you need in terms of equipment, what do you need in terms of training? I can’t do everything, but I know that I can do better.

I’ve asked them: Come to me with options. Within a world of limited budget resources, show me the path towards greatness.

We have also begun reassessing how we think about the nature and quality of the agents we assign to do this work. We have to ensure that these agents, when they come to these positions, have the necessary experience and the motivation to build partnerships with tribal law enforcement and serve tribal communities in a good way.


And that highlights the importance of partnerships—something you know, because you’re here.

No matter what changes and improvement the FBI tries to make, we will be ineffective if we try to do them on our own.

There is a Native American proverb attributed to a Teton Lakota Sioux named Lone Man; he said this: “I have seen that in any great undertaking, it is not enough for man to depend simply on himself.”

I have traveled this entire country; I have visited nearly all of our field offices. In every single one of them, I’ve said the same thing: the FBI literally—not figuratively, literally—does nothing alone. Everything we accomplish, we accomplish in partnership with other people, non-FBI people. Those people—you—are our eyes and our ears. There are so many more of you than there are of us. It’s simply about effectiveness for us to be able to work well together.

If you have issues or you see problems that need to be addressed, please let us know. One of the things I hope you encounter with the FBI is what I expect from my workforce—I expect humility. I expect them to be proud to work for the FBI, and that that pride breeds humility.

The example I’ve been using—I was not a football player, as I hope you can tell—I use an example from football. There was a running back for the Detroit Lions named Barry Sanders, who’s in the Hall of Fame. Every time the man scored a touchdown, he did the same thing: he handed the ball to the referee, and he went and he sat down. No dancing, no signing the ball and throwing it into the stands, no running around saying, “Look at me.” He scored a touchdown, and he went and he sat down.

So why is that? I think it’s because he knew he was great. He knew the nature and quality of his work, and it made him—that pride in his work—humble, and a better teammate.

I have tremendous pride in the FBI. It should breed humility. It should breed the kind of people who hand the ball to the referee and go sit down, and are good teammates. And part of being a good teammate is learning from the people around you with an open mind. You may be wrong, we may be wrong, but we don’t find that out unless we have a conversation. We don’t get better unless we have a quality conversation.

So please help us spot things that we don’t see, please help us see areas where we can do better. That effective partnership is the way we get to greatness.

In many areas, I think our partnerships with Native American communities are already quite effective; in other places, not so much. I think we can improve connections and working relationships. Let me discuss some of the things we’re doing to make sure we have healthy relationships, and that we can do to improve those relationships.

One of the most important, longstanding relationships we have, and most productive, is in our Safe Trails Task Forces. We’ve had these task forces around the country for 20 years. We have 14 of them, and their mission is to get everybody together to combat drug trafficking, to combat violence, and to fight corruption. We think these joint efforts make a real difference in the safety of Native American communities—we’re going to continue those.

Second: training. Training builds not just expertise but effective partnerships. We have worked with closely with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the National Advocacy Center to develop and provide training to FBI special agents, BIA agents, and tribal law enforcement. We provide training to tribal law enforcement in areas such as interviewing and interrogation; death investigations; forensic interviewing of kids; evidence collection; and child abuse investigations. And that simply has to continue—but we can do more.

Looking forward, our Indian Country Crimes Unit is developing a three-week school—in partnership with the BIA—to equip FBI, BIA, and tribal law enforcement officers with cutting-edge training on investigating crimes in Indian Country. We plan to hold that school four times a year. This training will not only better prepare our agents to do their work; it will provide specialized training to the partners they rely on in BIA and tribal law enforcement.

Third: In the area of child sexual abuse, among the most serious work all of us do in our entire lives, there are far too few of these cases that end up being prosecuted. We are using Multi-Disciplinary Teams, or MDTs, to try to increase the rate of prosecution. That’s a partnership that makes great sense to me.

These MDTs are made up of U.S. attorney personnel; tribal prosecutors; investigators from the FBI, BIA, and tribal law enforcement; child protective services; and medical and mental health professionals. We think that by having the MDTs meet regularly to review the entire docket of open cases involving child abuse and neglect, we will ensure that we don’t miss anything, and we’ll ensure that we drive toward results that bring healing and justice to the victims of these horrific crimes.

The FBI’s Work with Victims of Crime

I want to say a word about our work with victims. All of you are here today because you care deeply about victims’ rights; you care deeply about victims’ issues. I told two of my colleagues from our Office for Victim Assistance in the alcove outside that I believe they are the true heroes of the FBI.

I have some sense, from personal experience, of how victims of crime feel. When I was a senior in high school, a gunman kicked in the front door of my parents’ house, and held my brother and me captive. I believed he was going to execute us. We escaped; he caught us, and I believed again that he was going to execute us. We were able to escape again, and call the police.

Many, many times after that, people said to me, “Thank goodness nobody was hurt.” My reaction was: “Nobody was hurt?” I thought about that guy every single night for five years, and then many, many nights over the 37 years since then. Nobody was hurt?

I can only imagine a piece of the pain, of the sleepless nights, felt by people who are physically assaulted, raped, beaten, abused. My experience doesn’t compare to what they went through, what they go through every day. My experience I think made me a better person; I know it made me a better investigator and prosecutor, because it gave me some sense of what this is about—why this is work of the deepest moral content I can imagine: trying to work for people who suffer that pain and to bring them healing, and hope, and justice.

We at the FBI know that victims of crime also need culturally relevant and victim-centered support and services. That’s why we have our Office for Victim Assistance work to provide that help, as victims seek justice and try to get on with their lives.

As I hope you know, OVA oversees our victim specialists across the United States, one-third of whom—there aren’t enough of them—but one-third of them are devoted to provide services to tribal nations.

Just like you, much of our work involves the most heartbreaking crimes: homicides and violent assaults, rapes, and especially, abuse directed at kids—cases where I think the additional support provided by victim specialists is essential, is a gift.

Our victim specialists provide information on victims’ rights; they provide a guide way through the criminal justice system; they provide on-scene crisis intervention; they provide expertise to help agents in a sensitive, effective way to interview and deal with victims. And they walk with folks through the often cold, dark, scary time of court proceedings.

They recognize and respect that victims want to engage in cultural and spiritual traditions that help victims recover from terrible crimes. That is the right of every single victim, and our victim specialists as well as our special agents will make this a priority.

Our victim specialists are heroes because I think they offer a vital bridge, helping to resolve tensions between tribal or cultural traditions, and the need of our U.S. attorneys and our agents to recover and present evidence in a way that brings justice through the court system.

The work of our beloved victim specialists is so important to the FBI that we made sure that many of them were here today, with their counterparts from BIA, so they can talk with you about how to get better at their work.

* * *

One of our special agents who works in Native American communities has described the impact of the work this way:

“The crimes we investigate touch people’s day-to-day lives in a very real way—the murder of a friend, kids getting molested by their uncle. That’s why we’re here: to give victims a voice and to remind them that ‘justice for all’ applies equally to everyone in America.”

That is the essence of our job in the FBI—to ensure that justice is done for everyone in America, every man, woman, and child living in any part of this great land, including American Indian and Native Alaskan communities.

It’s challenging work, for the reasons I said—we have perceptions to overcome, we have reality to overcome. But I tell you our commitment is unshakeable, because this is why we do this work. All over the country, I’ve told my people: I hope you didn’t join the FBI to get rich. If you did, someone lied to you during the recruiting process. You joined the FBI because you wanted to do good for a living. You joined the FBI because you wanted to do work with moral content. That is a different way to make a living.

In fact, it’s not much of a living. But it brings to mind a great quote: You make a living by what you get, but you make a life by what you give.

Thank you for choosing to make those kind of lives for yourselves. Thank you for choosing to make those kind of lives for the people that you rescue, that you save, that you protect, that you guide, that you restore. Thank you for helping us get better at doing this work with you. Thank you for the partnership, thank you for the work with moral content.

We are honored to be with you. We look forward to many years working together. And I am honored to have a chance just to stand in the glow of people who have chosen to do that with their lives.

Thanks for inviting me today.